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Chesterfield – a gateway to the Peak District

Posted in British Towns, Historical articles, Railways, Travel on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about Chesterfield originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Chesterfield, picture, image, illustration

The coat of arms of Chesterfield with (inset) George Stephenson; the twisted spire on the tower of the Church of Our Lady and All Saints; HMS Danae, the town’s adopted ship; the former inn, the Cock and Pynot, where the seven plotters met; Haddon Hall, one of several great houses near Chesterfield. Pictures by Dan Escott

Many places have become well known through things that are not in themselves particularly important, and the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield is no exception. People who have never paid it a visit usually think of it in connection with the large, double-ended couch of the same name. And anyone who knows the place at first hand remembers the Church of Our Lady and All Saints because of its extraordinary twisted spire, which looks as though at any moment it will fall down.

Apart from the fact that it originated with one of the earls of the same name, nobody knows the true story behind the first Chesterfield sofa. But the church’s strange appearance is almost certainly due to an early and not very successful experiment in constructing a perpendicular spiral of wood and then covering it with lead.

The earliest parts of the building date back to Norman times, although most of it was constructed during the 14th century. The crooked spire is eight sided, 71 metres high, and two brass studs in the floor of the sanctuary show its original position in relation to the building beneath it.

At present it is leaning 2.6 metres to the south, 2.8 metres to the south-west and 1.1 metres to the west, although rather surprisingly it is still quite stable, owing to its low centre of gravity.

Like the famous leaning tower in Pisa, in Italy, the “lean” of Chesterfield’s church is speeding up with the passing of time, and at present the spire is toppling over at the rate of about 2.5 cms every five years. Research is being carried out to see if it is possible to strengthen the structure in any way, although as often happens in these cases, the building seems able, in some strange way, to adjust itself to the changing stresses.

But there is more to this borough of 92,000 inhabitants than a sofa and a twisted spire, for it is in a rich coal-mining region and was an early centre of the iron industry. Its recorded story goes back over 1,000 years, although archeological investigation continues to fill in the many gaps in its earlier history.

Certainly there were two successive Roman forts here, and the first was demolished somewhere towards the end of the 1st century AD, and even in those days iron was already being smelted nearby.

What happened here after the Romans left is still not known for certain. It appears as “Cestrefield” in the Domesday Book, and in 1204 King John made it one of the first eight free boroughs in the country. It has had its share of battles, particularly during the Civil War when the Royalists, commanded by the Earl of Newcastle, won a victory over Cromwell’s Parliamentary army.

Chesterfield’s grimmest foe was the plague. In the years 1586 and 1587 one inhabitant in every four died of this terrible scourge. The town was stricken again in 1606, but in 1665, the year of London’s Great Plague, Chesterfield seems to have escaped.

Why this should have been is uncertain, for many country districts had appalling death tolls. Perhaps a clue may be found in the fact that 50 years earlier a new corporation had devised a vastly improved sanitary system for the town. Refuse was collected efficiently for the first time and possibly this resulted in there being fewer of the flea-carrying rats which were chiefly responsible for spreading the disease.

Only a few years later, Chesterfield was the scene of a rare event in British history – a plot to overthrow the king. The monarch in question was the Catholic King James II, and the conspirators were the Fourth Earl of Devonshire, the Earl of Danby, Mr John D’Arcy and four others, who were planning to invite the king’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, Prince William of Orange, to rule in James’s place.

The plot was successful, and as a reward for his support the Earl of Devonshire was made a duke. The house where the conspirators met, known as Revolution House, still stands and the “Plotting Room” is open to visitors.

Chesterfield has grown from a quiet market town to a bustling, compact community that calls itself, with some justification, “Derbyshire’s Opportunity Town”. Situated five kilometres from the M1 motorway, and only 2¬Ω hours from London by train, Chesterfield is well placed for speedy communication with the rest of the country, and its new trading estates are growing rapidly.

Within minutes of the great Peak District National Park, and with factories and offices so close to the heart of things that nobody has to do very much travelling, Chesterfield is a place where people are eager to work.

In many ways Chesterfield can be taken as a good example of the kind of community that is becoming increasingly popular with business enterprises. It is cheaper to open a factory here than in an overcrowded major city, overheads are less and people are keen to take jobs amid pleasant surroundings.

Nobody in Chesterfield has to go to work on a crowded tube train, work in cramped surroundings and reach the country only after a depressing journey through miles of sprawling suburbs. Some of the most beautiful countryside in England lies on their doorstep.

It is difficult to become bored in Chesterfield. There is a civic theatre, two cinemas, good libraries and a range of local societies that caters for almost every interest. If you like sport, there is county cricket at Queen’s Park, a professional football team and a leisure centre for followers of badminton, judo, weight-lifting and tennis. There are more than 30 recreation grounds of various sizes, three swimming pools and three golf courses – whatever your game, Chesterfield can almost certainly provide it.

Because Derbyshire’s Peak District, the first of Britain’s national parks, is so close at hand, many tourists use Chesterfield as a base. From here it is also easy to visit such stately homes as Chatsworth House, Bolsover Castle and Hardwick Hall. But local people are proudest of Chesterfield’s own Tapton House, which may be smaller but was the home of the great George Stephenson, who supervised the building of the railway through Chesterfield and who died here in 1848.

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